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What if Video
Games are
Playgrounds?
Author: Andy Robertson

30/05/2023 / 12 months ago / Author: Andy Robertson


As a video game journalist, father and sometime video game player, I’ve spent the last 20 years around people who put play at the top of their list of important activities. Through YouTube, broadcast on the BBC and writing in Forbes I’ve interacted with millions of children, young adults and grown-ups about their love and of video games.

What I hear from these people, of all walks and all ages, are stories about finding intrinsic value in the “nonsense” of the video games they spent tens of hours on each week playing. But what I hear from people looking in from the outside is more about how dangerous, messy and wasteful they are. If you don’t play, video games seem like a simple problem to solve - we just need to limit their impact, tidy them up or put them to work for some other benefit.

This is why I wrote my Taming Gaming book. It’s intentionally named to appeal to those worried about video games but takes them on a journey into the value of play. I explain what we really know about the impact of video game violence, addiction, gambling and strangers not to diminish them but to put them in perspective. That perspective is most often that the collateral benefits that happen during this play aren't eclipsed by the potential dangers.

This disconnection between what video games are and how society sees them isn’t something a book can solve. New media has always had this challenge, as have spaces that offer children ownership of their play. The moral panic around new forms of entertainment or communication is relatively well known - now comical stories about the dangers of novels, the telephone and the radio. Less well-known is the history of play being undervalued and losing out to the priorities of the adult world - most telling through our love of the car and its prioritising in the design and use of the public space.

This second story is one I’ve been learning about, after discovering the Playwork community and talking to Playworkers. It’s a role I thought I understood - something about capitalising on the benefits of play in the classroom. However, talk to a Playworker and you realise there’s much more to this than meets the eye.

Playworkers are trained and experienced in understanding the intrinsic, innate impulse to play. In accordance with the Playwork Principles, they value play as a “biological, psychological and social necessity, that is fundamental to the healthy development and wellbeing of individuals and communities”. But rather than instigating, making it safe or corraling play for useful purposes, they instead work to support children's agenda of playing, create spaces where children can freely direct themselves and are present to protect play when needed (often from the misguided good intentions of other adults).

That in itself is an exciting idea, and one I’d love my own children to have had more of. But just as exciting is the realisation that this Playwork community and these people have a history and hope that aligns powerfully with both how valuable and overlooked video games are.

Playwork started as a response to how children found new ways to play in bombed-out houses of post-war Europe and went on a journey through Junk Playgrounds, supporting children’s love of Loose Parts play and the spread of Adventure Playgrounds. Today we see children responding to the erosion of opportunities to play in the public realm by flocking to both private and public video games.

Playwork gives us not only the language and scaffolding to talk about play but also a map of how adults' response to children’s play-making can misunderstand and inaccurately assess both opportunities and dangers. It shows the importance of resisting our instinct to tidy up, make safe or put to work the things that children are using for their own opaque and deeply important purposes that we might not fully understand.

Well-staffed adventure playgrounds, where they still exist, reflect the aspirations of early junk playground pioneers and continue to follow the playwork principles, prioritising children's play above all else. In contrast, many of the more common and commercially manufactured fixed equipment play areas provided for children place an emphasis on tidiness and safety over play. These are often less exciting, prescriptive spaces that lack the ongoing relationships and playful culture of classic adventure playgrounds.

There is a similar misunderstanding about what video games are and why children love them. Unsurprisingly, this is leading to a similar commercialisation, tidying up and making safe of virtual play spaces. Roblox is a beautiful example of a game that looks like a mess and seems to be contaminated with all sorts of dangers (particularly for journalists like me who were raised on prettier video games). Children love it and adults love to hate it.

It’s a video game where amateur game makers invent playground-style spaces with loose rules and evolving objectives. Children pick one of these spaces and join others from all over the world to play. To watch a Roblox game is as confusing as it is impenetrable. Just when you think you understand it, you realise the children have changed the rules and left you behind. But linger long enough and pay attention to the play itself as a Playworker would and you catch wind of a space where “play is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated”. It’s children rather than adults who “determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons”.

Even writing this I feel the pressure to quickly mark out digital play as especially dangerous. Headlines come to mind about the extreme cases of play gone wrong, adults infiltrating and grooming, and other dangers we can’t accommodate because the negative outcomes for the most vulnerable are too risky. There is some truth in this, although the cases are much rarer than these stories suggest, and work needs to be done to understand the real proportional risks.

However, at the same time, we need to learn from Playworkers. Over decades they have balanced societal concerns about children playing in bombed-out buildings and the importance and need of that activity - even with all its potential high drops, splintered wood, tools and fire hazards. They have seen how children mediate their behaviour in Junk Playgrounds so that although there is more opportunity for injury they are statistically just as safe, if not safer, as more commercial playgrounds.

But perhaps the most important learning is how fragile these child-led spaces are in an adult world. Without recognition, funding and supportive legislation, the play-needs of children can be swept aside in favour of adults. Children say that “play is what we do when no one is looking”. Playwork has a history of believing and supporting children’s play as they describe it, in contexts where understandable adult concern threatens to undermine it.

In this moment of concern over video games like Roblox, we must carefully recognise the wisdom and ingenuity of children dealing with a world they have inherited where opportunities for play may be harder to find. Whether it’s in bombed-out buildings, Junk Playgrounds or messy video games like Roblox, children continue to have the desire and ability to find time and space for playing away from the direct control of adults.

It takes me back to what I said in my book (and too often forget) that we can be ambitious for the video game life of our children. Like Playworkres, we can stand with them as allies in play, not to turn it into what we think it should be, but to carefully listen and watch and learn how we can make play all it can be in the lives of children in our care.

As we do this, it seems video games may have something to offer back to Playworkers. To reframe how video games are understood. To uncover this movement of children and adults who are acting out many Playwork Principles in their love and understanding of the value of play in the digital space.
Image 324Andy Robertson
Written with input from Wendy Russell, researcher, educator, evaluator on children's play/playwork and Mike Barcaly play sufficiency lead for Wrexham Council.
Taming Gaming Book Written by parents for parents, the database complements the in-depth discussion about video game addiction, violence, spending and online safety in the Taming Gaming book. We are an editorially independent, free resource without adverts that is supported by partnerships.

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